“Casting” Your Characters

When writing something, I usually find (often without realizing it until well into my story) that I’ve “cast” an actor in at least one, if not more, of the chief roles. For example, the screenplay I’m writing now is based on a play I wrote last year, and somewhere in between starting and finishing writing that play, I realized it was Ewan McGregor’s voice in my head as the main character. A young Ewan McGregor, mind, since the characters are not long out of university, but him all the same.

With The K-Pro I had Benedict Cumberbatch in mind for David Styles, though in retrospect, were I to cast this as a film, I’m not sure I’d give him the part. Later in the story, I sort of had Emily Blunt in mind for Liz, and certainly Judy Dench as David’s mother . . . Everyone else I picture quite clearly but haven’t really found comparable actors for the roles. (Maybe that guy who played Lutz on 30 Rock for Craig?)

Of course, if you ever see a movie based on a book, it always fashions (or refashions) your mental image of the book. Sometimes, if I’ve read a book and then see the movie, I end up with two separate ideas in my head: my original and the one that has been fabricated for the multitudes. If I see the movie before I read the book, I’ll almost always simply picture events from the film version as I read. (Almost always.)

And then it’s somewhat surreal to see something you’ve written become a cast and produced—a concrete play or film. That changes things, too. I don’t know what I’ll think or feel when they make this screenplay (they’ve already cast one lead) . . . Will I keep picturing Ewan McGregor or will I be able to shift my interior perspective? I’ll literally have to wait and see.

The K-Pro & Maritime Signal Flags

Another little tidbit of trivia about my new novel The K-Pro: The necklace Andra wears is from a company called Style Newport. This company makes charms, earrings and such based on the alphabetical code of International Maritime Signal Flags. Andra wears a “C” for “Cassandra,” which Alfred reads as “Charlie” when he first meets her because that’s the code word for “C.” This particular flag also means “yes” or “affirmative,” and Alfred teases Andra about this a bit too.

I got the idea for Andra’s necklace because while on a trip to Newport I was given my Maritime Signal Flag pendant (the letter “M,” natch; later I was given matching earrings). And since “M” stands for “Mike” I was once asked if I was married to someone named Mike, or if I was married to a doctor (because the “M” flag can mean you have a medical officer aboard your ship—interesting they didn’t bother to ask if I were a doctor) . . . At least they didn’t ask if I was “stopped and making no way,” though sometimes when I’m stuck in my writing, that’s how it feels.

Three Songs

I was riding BART yesterday, something I don’t normally do, but I’d rather do that than drive into the city, and I was off to see Eddie Izzard. (Sherlock wrote about the night, if you’re curious. Or you can find my notes on the show over on spooklights.) Anyway, I passed the time listening to my iPod. I find music very inspiring, but I don’t get to listen to it as often as I would like. Sometimes a carful of children just keeps one from being able to focus on what’s on the radio. And even when driving alone, paying attention to the road can mean having to neglect the music.

I used to have a rocking chair—a Bentwood—in my room that I would sit in late at night while listening to music, therefore completely devoting my time and attention to the beats and lyrics. Alas, that chair is long gone and I seldom have the time for simply sitting around anyway.

So as I was listening to my iPod, I was really enjoying being able to focus on the songs. Of course most of them I already knew very well, old favorites, but it seemed like it had been a long time since I’d felt them and allowed them to fill my heart and mind. My iPod is always on shuffle because I like to be surprised, so as it cycled through songs, I began to connect the sentiments into one big story. Here are three songs that got played. Tell me what story they make up:

  1. “Sugar, We’re Going Down” by Fall Out Boy
  2. “Hands Are Tied” by Gin Blossoms
  3. “Santa Monica” by Everclear

There were lots of others, of course, but these three together seemed to tell a story. Boy wants girl (or boy, if you prefer); boy gets girl . . . but ends up in obsessive relationship in which she holds the power; boy seeks freedom, or at the very least a change in circumstances. Kind of a mini opera or something. At least, that’s how I heard it.

It’s kind of a fun exercise. Try it sometime. See how many random songs you can string into a story. If nothing else, it’s a good writing prompt.

Helicopter

My son got a remote-controlled helicopter for his birthday. I was doing dishes and turned to find it hovering at the back of my head. It almost immediately occurred to me that this was something Sherlock might do to John. It’s the kind of thing that would be introduced as comic—Mycroft got Sherlock a toy for Christmas! And Sherlock uses it to annoy John and Mrs Hudson (and possibly also to do some kind of study of mechanics or something) . . . But then later in the episode the helicopter would become necessarily useful in some way, like having a camera attached to it, or using it to deliver something . . . Or maybe whatever Sherlock was studying via helicopter will come into play as an applied science. Maybe he will have to fly an actual helicopter. That would be . . . over budget probably. But that’s how one structures these kinds of stories.

Meanwhile, I intend to keep the helicopter someplace higher than my son can reach. For now.

Mr Moffat, you have permission to steal this idea so long as you name the helicopter Pepper in my honor.

Zombies as Heros?

I think it’s time for a new take on the whole zombie thing. Here’s my little tidbit:

She studied him from across the table, and he didn’t fail to notice the way she sat back in her chair. Far back.

“So . . . You’re a zombie?”

“In the sense of a reanimated corpse, yeah. In the sense of me wanting to eat your brains? Not so much.”

She stared a little longer. “You don’t look dead.”

“Embalming fluid.”

“You don’t smell dead.”

“Body spray.”

I’m still unpacking boxes in my office. Yes, even two or more months after moving into the house! But today I had the great good fortune to find my original papers in Dr Douglass Parker’s Parageography course at UT Austin. I kept everything from that course, which I took in the spring of 1998, my last semester as an undergraduate. So I have the syllabus, all the original assignments, my papers, and Doc Parker’s wondrous collection of bits and pieces of his own world, which was (still is, I suppose) known as High Thefarie.

But especially sweet is to see his handwriting and his encouragement for my work. At a time when I’m feeling a little low, it’s a small blessing to remember he believed in me as a writer. He kept asking me when I was going to turn my world of AElit into something—books or whatever. (I did incorporate some of it into my graduate thesis.) But Doc Parker knew as much as anyone, if not more, all the tinkering and long hours that goes into building a world from scratch. I think he was hoping I’d move faster than he had done.

I like to think he’d at least have liked my e-books, which I’m pleased to say continue to sell relatively well; already in the first 10 days of August I’ve sold more than I did in all of July. I need to keep working—Doc Parker would be telling me to get on with it—but I’m feeling a bit scattershot of late. There have been many setbacks and disappointments, and I’m having trouble gathering all my threads again.

Of Comic-Con and Graphic Novels

Pretty much everyone knows Comic-Con is happening in San Diego right now. (And there are a lot of Comic-Cons, I realize, but San Diego is really THE Comic-Con.) I’ve always wanted to go, and now that I have a home base on the West Coast, I’m thinking I might try to attend next year.

Mostly, I’m curious. I’ve been to conventions, though not in many, many years, and never one quite as large as Comic-Con. I even dressed up for a con once . . . An anime convention, it was, and a costume designer friend dudded me up as Touga from Shoujo Kakumei Utena. That was different.

I’ve attended a number of conventions as an invited guest, too. That’s usually fun because they get you a room and feed you and such (except once, in a time before cell phones were common, I was forgotten at the airport). It can be a little stressful, too, though, if you’re shy like I am and a bunch of people want pictures and for you to sign things. I really don’t mind, I’m just terribly awkward. Once you get me settled somewhere with a group of people I can really get to know, I’m much better. I like talking to people, but I hate superficial conversations; I want to get into the meat of things. Otherwise I just don’t see the point.

In any case, a friend of mine (we were coworkers at a big textbook publisher way back when) is now a graphic artist in Denver and makes the trek to Comic-Con every year. Wouldn’t mind stopping by his booth to check out his latest work. (If you’ve never read Byron, you should, it’s a hoot. And Karl’s style is singular.)

I’ve always wanted to try writing a graphic novel myself, but I have no idea how to go about it. I do have an idea for one, or a series of them rather, but I can’t draw—took lessons and everything, not like I haven’t tried, but my brain doesn’t work that way—and as I understand it, writing a comic or graphic novel script is different in some ways from, well, pretty much every other kind of writing. I do prose and I do plays and I do film and television scripts, but I’ve never even looked at a comic book “script” (if that’s what they’re called?) so I have no clue. Maybe I’ll look into it, though. Maybe this is how I’ll get back into writing. Just something completely different.

Making My Case

This is why Hollywood should hire me: studies have shown that open systems are more successful overall than closed ones.

By which I mean production companies and studios that keep using the same pool of writers, directors and so forth over and over again will eventually run out of ideas and ways to be innovative. By keeping young talent out—and/or making it difficult for us to “break in” (why should we have to “break” anything?)—these systems are actually doing themselves a great disfavor.

Jonah Lehrer uses the example of pro athletes in his book Imagine. America produces a great number of good athletes. How? Not by narrowing the margins, but by throwing a wide net. Would-be athletes get many, many opportunities to play and perfect their games, their techniques. From the time they are young, they are encouraged to keep trying and repeatedly rewarded for their efforts. When they get scouted in high school and college, they still may be a bit rough, but potential is what counts. Being a pro athlete is like a very long apprenticeship. Scouts and teams are willing to take a few risks on players who may not be quite there yet, but with a little more work have the chance to be stellar.

Another example (also from Lehrer): medical and/or technical research and innovation. Labs and companies that are willing to take more risks have records of having more success. This makes sense; throw a wider net and you’re more likely to catch something worthwhile.

Meanwhile, Hollywood continues to be an insular enclave in which the same actors and directors make the same few movies again and again. Writers and producers borrow from themselves and each other, but it’s all the same stuff. (Steven Moffat ended both Doctor Who and Sherlock with faked deaths, which doesn’t show much fresh thinking on his part; granted, the Sherlock story line was a given due to the source material, but to do it on his other show, too? Really?)

Time to try something new.

So why not with someone like me, who has the education and a smattering of experience but could really use an apprenticeship of some kind to boost my abilities and talents? A mentor, if you will. I’m willing to keep learning, so long as someone will teach me. As far as risks go, I’m not even a long shot. Hollywood needs fresh blood and new ideas, and here I am—me and thousands of others like me—ready and willing, able to serve. If only the system would lay a little money on the table and take a few risks.

After all, the best and brightest know how to make good use of all their resources.

Quiet & Imagine

I recently read (and have mentioned here) Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. And now I’m reading Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works. I find them to be a good double billing for those interested in these kinds of subjects. Having studied psychology (and particularly fan psychology, but I find people and the ways they act and think fascinating in general), I am interested in these sorts of studies—and anyway, I sometimes need a break from the fiction I typically read (and write).

What’s especially thought provoking is how Cain and Lehrer use the same kinds of situations and examples to their own purposes, which are not at all opposed—the two authors are looking at two different aspects of personality, but these aspects happen to intersect in a way that causes the authors to cite similar material. And so, reading the books back to back as I have done, these things stand out. Cain uses Steve Wozniak and the Homebrew Computer Club to showcase Woz as an introvert; Lehrer uses the same to point out how cross-pollination of ideas aids in creativity.

Even something as simple as color can be looked at from both angles: extroverts are more drawn to red, which seems to echo and fuel their high levels of energy, while introverts like blue, which they find calming and soothing. Cain points out that extroverts look for stimulation; introverts often feel overstimulated and so search for pockets of quiet. Meanwhile, Lehrer shows how red backgrounds in studies cause people to focus more in a convergent thinking kind of way, while blue backgrounds aided divergent forms of thinking and free association.

It’s no surprise that extroverts and introverts are both creative and in different ways, which is what I take away from reading these two books and mentally compiling the data provided. Lehrer discusses the general idea that many artists turn toward focus-enhancing drugs (Benzedrine, Adderall). If we consider that many such personalities are likely to be introverts, and that they are perhaps given to head-in-the-clouds modes of thought, then when they’ve finally come up with that great idea for a story or poem or song, it makes a little bit of sense that they would then need something to help them zero in and do the job. Meanwhile, an extrovert might turn to a little marijuana to help him loosen up and free-associate more, allowing him to come up with new ideas.

Lehrer points out that creativity is something that can require the right mix of insiders and outsiders; that is, people with a lot of experience in a field and people with only a surface understanding of it. And Cain discusses the careful balance of extroverts to introverts in interactions and how offices should utilize both sets of skills and talents and personality types. Somewhere in this mix, then, is surely a solid equation for the perfect storm of talent, creativity and ability: the right number of extroverts tempered by the right number of introverts, the right number of experts balanced by the right number of newcomers, and the key method for using them all to their fullest potential (time alone to think and come up with ideas + cross-pollination of those ideas + teamwork/experts + newcomers = ???). It’s a tall order—more math than I’m willing to do—but find someone who can and will do it, and you’d have the formula for the perfect workplace.

As a writer, I spend a lot of my time alone, chasing ideas around my own head. And then when I find one, I have to sit down and focus long enough to get it written, edited, &c. All the mechanical bits of my trade. (I’m a writer who doesn’t use Benzedrine or Adderall, just lots of soda and chocolate.) I have to balance this with networking and attending functions, which I usually enjoy but have a difficult time getting excited about because of my painful shyness; a room full of writers is often a room full of people looking sullen and standing around the outskirts, at least until one of them has had enough to drink. Lucky for me I work a bit in theatre, so all the drama types will do the work. And, as pointed out by Cain, even introverts can have meaningful conversations once they open up, but there is a long warm-up period, and as a rule we’re terrible at small talk. In the end, I almost always end up having a good time once I find one or two people to talk to. I only want and need those one or two, though. Then I’m satisfied. More than that and I get tapped out pretty quick.

But as Lehrer explains, these networking events are very important, not only for making those connections, but for stimulating creativity via the cross-pollination method.

To summarize, these two books work together to make one very interesting read. They more or less dovetail into one another and give one a lot to think about.

As if I didn’t have enough to think about already.

Open the Channel

I’ve done a few little Tarot readings—and I’m crap at reading cards, I have to use a host of resources to try and work it all out—but several of them have come up lately with this . . . I don’t know, what do readings do? Suggest? Intimate? Declare? . . . Anyway, the long and short has been that I’m somehow designed to take information from the ether and translate it for the masses. Like Moses on the Mount, I suppose. “Prophet” has come up in a few interpretations, and talk of my having “access to the Divine.”

Well, I don’t take any of that too seriously, but it does make me think of my writing. Which isn’t prophetic by any stretch, but I have noticed I have two distinct modes when writing: active, conscious effort and a sort of “other” mode. And when I’m in the other mode, it’s almost like automatic writing or something, except that I don’t feel possessed at all, I’m just tapping into something, like a jet stream of inspiration. Maybe that’s what people mean when they talk about their muses, but for me it’s more like an idiot savantism.

I wrote a poem in college (don’t know why I bothered to take poetry writing; I can write anything but poetry), and when my instructor handed it back, she’d written this note on it: “Wherever you got this, go back for more.” And I thought, If I could, I would, Sister. But the thing about these flashes or whatever . . . They’re like rides, but they can’t ever be scheduled, and most of the time I never remember them later. I wait at the station for the train. Sometimes I force the issue and jump on any ol’ train but I don’t go anywhere interesting. But when the right train comes along . . . At the end, I’m back home and can’t recall anything about the trip, but I’ve got a bunch of written work as a souvenir. That poem the instructor liked so much? I have this vague memory of being at a friend’s house when I wrote it. And most of the time after having written something like that—something that came from “out there”—I can’t even remember that much about where or when it was written. It’s like I wake up and find it and wonder where it came from.

Of course, the same thing happens to me when I’m on stage. I can’t remember any performance, and so I always feel bad when people come congratulate and thank me after a show.

Maybe I have a disorder. I probably have several, actually.

There hasn’t been much by way of inspiration lately. No trains at the station. So I’m doing it the old-fashioned way, which is to bully my way through the writing I’m trying to get done. Else nothing gets done at all.